Published: Feb 09, 2015
Meet Rolf Hut, a Postdoc at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. Rolf specializes in using consumer electronics to explain science to nonscientific audiences.
What is your current position and what was your career trajectory that got you to this position?
I started my PhD in water management researching a rather mathematical topic - the integration of network theory and signal theory. My research focus shifted when one afternoon a fellow student and I showed that you can use a Wii remote to easily track the position of a weather vane. After that, more people came to me and asked if I could help them out with their measurements and sensor setups. My PhD soon shifted from a mathematical topic to a PhD focused on building sensors from household appliances.
Though you’ve followed a fairly academic career path thus far, you’re becoming quite well known for being a tinkerer, a MacGyver of hydrology. How did this come about? Did you begin playing with Lego and never really put them down?
As a kid, I indeed always played with Lego, but I was never really the “builder” or “maker” that I have become lately. Though I was always interested in tinkering with the work of others, I only started building stuff in my late twenties. I believe this is an important thing for other potential makers and builders out there: you don’t have to be a child prodigy to start building cool stuff.
I understand that you just met with Adam Savage of Mythbusters to discuss some of your recent research. Can you tell us about this research and this particular meeting?
A colleague had shown me results from a study he did on the impact of sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the model he used I realized we could use it to analyze the famous “escape from Alcatraz.” I provided my colleague with historic tidal data to run the model with. We then contacted another colleague to do particle tracking on these results so we could analyze where the Alcatraz escapees could have made landfall.
For a visualization of the model, see here - http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30349106
We indeed met with Adam Savage from the Mythbusters. We discussed our model results and his Mythbuster’s escape attempt reenactment. The most interesting thing Adam mentioned was that according to his experience hypothermia was not an issue during the 50 minutes that the escapees were paddling from Alcatraz to the shore. On the contrary he even put bay-water (at 50F, 10C) into his raincoat to cool himself down.
Based on your previous work. which has been covered by major news outlets all over the world, clearly people outside of academics find your work important and exciting. Along these lines, any advice for young students considering pursuing a career in the geosciences?
First of all I recognize that I have been extremely lucky in that my research is well suited for exposure to the general public. It is much easier to talk about how you used parts of a game console in your research than how you fitted a nonlinear objective function in a high dimensional parameter space.
Second, I had a very good course on presenting your work during my master’s degree that helped me a lot. If your university offers a “presenting to general public” course, I encourage you to take it.
Finally, get to know a journalist or two. Have a (legal) drink with them and understand what makes their world go round. Then you can give them a heads-up when you have relevant, cool work that you want to share with the world.
For a student considering pursuing a degree in the geosciences, any advice for getting into the science communication aspect? Is this something that comes about naturally or have you pursued specific goals?
I believe a bit of both: When I know that I have done (or participated in) some research that has general appeal, I make sure that I have specific material ready for different audiences. As an example of what I put online for journalists regarding the Alcatraz work see rolfhut.nl/alcatrazEnglish
What’s next for you? How soon until we see your work on the front page of Reddit again?
My current work focusses on eWaterCycle (eWaterCycle.org). We aim to build an operational real time global hydrologic model at hyper resolution. Ultimately this will be a weather report, but for all terrestrial water in the world. Currently this does not have the media-potential that our Alcatraz work has, but I hope that once we are up and running and can start predicting our first floods with nine days lead time. This will be exciting.
To a young student reading this at home right now, what’s one thing they should take apart (tinker with) immediately?
A tumble dryer. Seriously. It is generally easy to dismantle without destroying its components, it has a water cycle, mechanical components, and electrical components. They are totally awesome if you need components.